Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 49

When, in even a single thought-moment of sincere mind,
You have attained shinjin and joy, gladdened by what
      you have heard,
Bow down in homage at the feet
Of the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!

The Form of Amida Buddha

We human beings are not disembodied spirits. We are a complex of elements, factors and influences, and these are in constant flux. We also have a natural sense of continuity - and such a sense is paradoxically integral to our mental health and sense of well-being. There is nothing we could or should do about it. Since we are foolish beings (bombu, Sk. prthagjana) we need Amida Buddha's entrusting heart as the cause of our rebirth (ojo) - our nirvana - precisely because we clearly see our limited and unenlightened state. Illusion is not an objective flaw which we acknowledge; it is what we are. It is our reality.

So, we cannot function in a disembodied, ethereal way. The Pure Land path especially recognises that we cannot be reached by truth or find salvation unless the dharma body takes a form which we can comprehend - an embodied buddha.

Communication is ultimately incomplete without the physical presence of those to whom we wish to speak. Facial expression, our demeanour and posture convey a significant proportion of what we understand the other's intention to be. Literature has a very important role but it is a special form of communication which requires the readers to exercise their imagination. There is a gulf of considerable size between writing and face-to-face contact. So the dharma body takes form as Namo-amida-butsu.

We all know the power of emotions. Intense anger can break out in violence, desire craves physical contact, gratitude a gift, awe a gasp, happiness a smile. And joy? When we are deeply touched by the unconditional compassion of Amida Buddha; when joy and gratitude well up within our hearts, what are we to do? As embodied beings we have no option. In our hearts and voices Amida Buddha emerges as the Name - Namu-amida-butsu. Our hands come together in anjali (gassho), that ageless gesture of adoration that is common to all people. The sense of joy can be so overwhelming that we want to dance but perhaps too our heads will bow in reverence. And our eyes need to see.

The 'principal object' (honzon) in Shin Buddhist temples is a form that can be seen - the image of the Name in ten characters: ki-myo-jin-jip-po-mu-ge-ko-nyo-rai - 'Homage to the Tathagata whose light is unihindered throughout the ten quarters.' It can become the focus of adoration, it can be cherished and enjoyed. In this way, the infinite reaches into the most intimate domain of creatures like us, who are almost uniquely characterised by complex speech and language.

When joy wells up within us we call the Buddha to mind, raise our voices to say nembutsu, and join our hands in adoration.

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